The Real News
by Shai Sachs, Sat Dec 22, 2007 at 09:48:18 AM EST
Over the past few months, I've written a few pieces on the feasibility of establishing a progressive cable news channel. I've written about opportunities to push MSNBC in a leftward direction for the short-term, as well as a long-term strategy for piecing together a new national network using leased cable access in a number of major metropolitan areas. Today, I'll discuss the work of The Real News, an up-and-coming non-profit progressive news channel based in Canada, which has a fascinating long-term plan for establishing a national presence for progressive TV news. If you're unfamiliar with The Real News, this interview with CEO Paul Jay gives a great overview to the channel's understanding of how to deliver high-quality journalism in today's environment.
I recently spoke with Geraldine Cahill, the director of social media for The Real News, about the channel's plans for 2008 and beyond. The Real News has a lot of interesting plans for the future, and many of them are, I think, very much on the right track. This is an exciting example of a new up-and-coming progressive institution which "gets it" in many ways, and I think it deserves a lot of support from the blogosphere. Cahill and I spoke about the channel's plans for more content, more widespread distribution, better fundraising, and increased engagement of grassroots supporters and donors. Much more across the flip.
A key to proving the viability of a new channel is the amount of high quality, frequently-updated content the channel can produce on a regular basis. The Real News began steadily increasing the number of videos it produces since June of 2007, with a noticeable bump in August 2007. Within the next 2 - 3 months, The Real News believes it can create about 3 - 4
short pieces a day, 2 - 3 longer pieces every week, and a few
occasional special feature-length pieces. Current staffing levels are sufficient to support that level of production.
The Real News hopes that the 2008 elections will boost interest in progressive news, and give the channel an opportunity to produce still more content. A key element to capturing this opportunity is the channel's plan to build a Washington, DC bureau and a New York studio. (Most production efforts are currently based in Toronto.) Fundraising is currently underway to support these projects. As someone who finds campaign coverage woefully vapid and horserace-focused, I find the prospect of a steady stream of progressive, policy-oriented, substantive campaign coverage extremely exciting. It'll be very interesting to see this coverage take shape.
If the Real News can manage to produce a one hour nightly news show, it will still need a distribution channel for its content. That means finding a cable provider that has space for such a show. Currently The Real News has a relationship with LinkTV for satellite distribution, and Vision TV for cable distribution in Canada. There are a few providers in other parts of the world, such as EUX TV in Europe and a few providers in India. The Real News is also looking into distribution as an on-demand video service with Comcast. In the US, there are efforts underway to place The Real News programming on public access TV, and RNN TV in New York. Currently, the Real News is primarily distributed online, and the hopes are to distribute the videos on cable and satellite by Summer 2008.
All of these plans, however, depend on the channel's financial viability. While the channel's initial funding came from a few foundational grants and large individual donors, and it plans to continue using those funding streams into the near future, The Real News is pursuing a long-term strategy for financial stability founded mostly on small individual donors. This plan, though, has a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem: small donors don't want to jump into something until it looks viable, but viability for a news channel (as I've mentioned above) requires regular production of fresh content, which requires a lot of up-front funding. The channel could be self-sustaining with a corps of 250,000 monthly subscribers, each contributing $10 / month. You can click here to subscribe today.
In a way, The Real News funding model is very similar to that of public television, but without corporate and government sponsorship. There's no space in The Real News funding formula for corporate advertising. That's an important distinction, and it will allow the channel to have a wide range of editorial freedom. Watching Paul Jay talk about the way that editorial freedom will lead to a higher quality of meaningful journalism is exciting, and it certainly makes me think that The Real News has a very good understanding of what's wrong in journalism today, especially in TV journalism.
At the same time, I am a bit worried about the no-advertising model, because I think it both isolates progressive news from a huge chunk of economic life, and places obstacles in the face of progressive candidates wishing to reach a progressive audience. I think that the progressive movement and the economy as a whole benefit greatly when companies target and solicit progressive customers. Such targeting can yield money for progressive causes at the same time that it creates actual change, by forcing companies to adopt socially responsible policies. Moreover, it has the potential to lead to progressive social change - think, for example, of consumers who buy organic because they believe it's healthier, and eventually become more environmentally and socially aware as a result. Turning down corporate advertising means closing doors in the face of companies who want to reach progressives. So I am a little worried about the opportunities lost because the Real World is not soliciting advertising. But I can certainly understand the channel's genuine concern for editorial freedom.
What is most exciting about the Real News, I think, is its deep and broad understanding of the social media landscape, and its open embrace of crowdsourcing. Grassroots engagement means a lot of different things to the Real News, and the channel offers its supporters a whole range of options for involvement, including:
- The ability to support the channel through monthly donations
- The opportunity to host house parties to spread the word about the Real News, and to support other local events sponsored by The Real News
- The opportunity to provide citizen eye-witness video footage, which might get included or used in news reports
- Occasional chances to translate video content into other languages
- The ability to comment on and share video clips, both on the Real News YouTube channel and on its own internal social network
You can, of course, join the Real News volunteer email list to learn about new opportunities as they arise.
Cahill, who directs social media efforts for The Real News, appears to have exactly the right understanding of social media: give people a lot of different opportunities to engage, and hope that over time, they will eventually become more and more involved with the channel. While The Real News certainly is not bashful about asking people to become monthly subscribers, it certainly offers people a number of other ways to help out and be involved.
On the whole, I think the Real News is a remarkable operation, and it appears to have a very good grasp of how to operate a progressive news show in today's user-focused, grassroots-supported, social media environment. I think the channel deserves much more support from the progressive blogosphere, and I'll be excited to see it take off during the 2008 elections.